#98 The G|O Briefing, May 19, 2022

A new report offers models to strengthen the UN's investigative capacity - A tighter relationship between China and Russia

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, ‘Anchoring Accountability for Mass Atrocities’, a new research paper by Oxford University released today in Geneva, makes the case for building a standing investigative support mechanism to help the UN fulfill its investigative mandates. It comes at a time when the call for global justice has never been so loud.

“The war on Ukraine has a systemic impact on Geneva,” says a Western diplomat. We continue to report from the ground on how International Geneva deals with the shock.

Winner of the first Lombard Odier Prize, awarded last week by the Geneva-based Forum suisse de politique internationale (FSPI) for his research into WHO's actions in Africa, historian Simplice Ayangma Bonoho tells us that, in his view, the legacy of colonialism still endures in the definition and implementation of global health and sanitary policies.

On Sunday, the World Health Assembly, WHO’s governing body, will open its Seventy-fifth annual session.

“The pandemic has undermined progress towards the health-related targets in Sustainable Development Goals and laid bare inequities within and between countries,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Sustained recovery will require more than ‘getting back on track’ and reinvesting in existing services and systems. We need a new approach, which means shifting priorities and focusing on the highest-impact interventions.”

Can the international community still achieve great things? That’s the question that Kevin Watkins, former CEO of Save the Children, asks in our op-ed. “Born during the darkest days of the twentieth century, the Bretton Woods system created a powerful vehicle for mobilizing finance on a global scale. But, rather than leveraging the system to help poor countries recover from the pandemic and meet broader development goals, the rich world continues to court danger by playing it safe,” he says.

It's all below. As always, thank you for reading us.



By Philippe Mottaz

Late this afternoon of May 19, in Room XXIII of the Palais des Nations in Geneva—a cool respite from the brutal outside heat—Stephen Rapp, former US Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice and former prosecutor in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, could not resist sharing a joke before moving to the grave matter at hand: “I used to say that ‘at large’ is what I have in common with fugitives, [they] are ‘at large’ and on the run because of the law! But I want to see the law enforced, because the massive violations that we see across the planet, the crimes against humanity, the war crimes, and genocide in some cases, cannot remain unpunished. If you commit these massive crimes, don’t think that you can get away with it. This is what this is all about.”

Before him, the German Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Katharina Stash, had told the audience that “strengthening accountability and fighting impunity is a huge challenge, but […] justice is a precondition for reconciliation, stability, and peace. As a German, I know what I am talking about.”

The two were among thirteen distinguished panelists gathered here to launch a new research paper ‘Anchoring Accountability for Mass Atrocity: Permanent Support is Needed for UN Investigative Mandates’.

Years in the making, the report is the result of a partnership between the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), the International Bar Association (IBA) and the Simon Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide (CPG), of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“This research paper,” write its two main co-authors, Stephen Rapp and Federica D’Alessandra, “examines the role of UN investigative mandates in probing serious violations of international human rights, humanitarian and, increasingly, international criminal law, as well as their role within the broader international justice ecosystem. (…) As its main recommendations, this study presents two chief options for building permanent support for UN mandated investigations and their contributions to international justice:

Option 1, the establishment of a standing, independent UN investigative support mechanism (ISM) empowered to provide a range of services to all UN investigative mandates concerned with accountability […] and Option 2, the establishment of a permanent investigative support division (ISD) within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to assist Human Rights Council-mandated investigations and to provide support where relevant to case-building mandates when these are conferred independently of OHCHR.”

“The challenges faced by UN investigations are far-ranging,” write Rapp and D’Alessandra. “Examples include differing standards of operation between evidence-providing organizations on the ground; differing political and legal expectations, capacities, and legal requirements; and inconsistencies in data management and analysis processes even between UN bodies.

“Another theme emerging from our data is the important role UN investigative mandates can play in conducting open-source investigations and leveraging other forms of digital and documentary technologies to support the work of those on the ground. (… )A recurrent refrain from those interviewed for this study concerned the modernisation of UN investigations supported by OHCHR such that they are truly able to handle the challenges and opportunities offered by the digital revolution.”

The independent investigative mechanisms on Syria, Myanmar and Daesh/ISIL have demonstrated their capacity to collect, analyze and corroborate existing information coming from different actors, including civil society.

Such an independent standing investigative support division would do two things, explained Rapp: “It could receive mandates like Syria and the Myanmar mechanism, given to them by a UN body in order to do the work. Or it could provide support to other mandates. It could do what the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights cannot do.”

“This demand for justice is very loud, and cannot be ignored,” Sam Zarifi, Secretary-General of the International Commission of Jurists, told the audience. “There is a clear sense of breakdown in the international legal order; a sense of greater conflict and of greater impunity. We can draw a line from what happened in Sri Lanka, to Syria, to Ukraine […] and therefore, [there is a] need for accountability for them to stop. Why is there not justice for all of these horrible things happening? Accountability matters. If you want to prevent atrocities, you have to punish the perpetrators. If you want to be serious about having an international legal order, you have to have a rule of law that addresses the commitments that States make very solemnly in rooms like this. And part of those commitments is that when human rights are violated, there will be justice.”

Germany is expected to make the case to the G7 for the standing mechanism advocated by the report. Liechtenstein was a co-sponsor of the event. With the recommendations now in the open, the process has just started. We will follow it.


By Jamil Chade

On May 12, the Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a resolution to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine. In previous UN votes condemning Russia, China abstained. Not this time. Along with Eritrea, it voted against it—with 33 members supporting the resolution and 12 abstentions. During discussions on the Commission’s mandate, even stripped of its membership privileges, Russia could have spoken, but it chose not to. Russia’s silence went largely unreported. It didn’t go unnoticed, however.

Western capitals see it as another telling sign of a further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, and of how, along with other countries in Africa and the Middle East, the two powers are coordinating their pushback against Western countries’ efforts to isolate the Russian Federation.

The question of how to deal with Russia is consuming Geneva. It is now openly revealing an ideological battle that goes beyond Ukraine. We live in a post-Western world. But what was, before Russia’s February 24 invasion, abstract geopolitical reality, has now become more palpable in all its dimensions and consequences on the ground for the future of multilateralism and international cooperation.

China, Russia, and their allies are fighting what they see as the West’s use of their condemnation of the war as a means to extend their influence in the multilateral system.

During the HRC debate, Chinese diplomat Jiang Duan made it clear that Beijing would not recognize the premises behind the resolution:Regrettably, the draft resolution circulated by the pen-holding countries is neither balanced nor objective,” he said. “It fails to cover such contents as supporting dialogue and negotiations, calling for a political settlement, accommodating the security concerns of all parties, and calling to stop arms transfer. Instead of contributing to resolving the Ukraine issue in a peaceful manner by diplomatic means, it will only further escalate tensions and exacerbate confrontation,” the Chinese diplomat concluded.

The following day, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that a decision had shaken members’ trust in the body. Zhao said that China’s objection was due to the UN choosing to target some countries that wage war, while turning a blind eye to others.

In this tense moment, the narrative tends to obscure the fact that the condemnation of Russia is not an effort to exclude Moscow from the multilateral system, but rather to denounce its violations of the UN Charter when it decided to invade Ukraine. “We are not kicking Russia out of the system,” a senior Western diplomat tells The G|O.

On one level there is a general condemnation of the war, but beyond that, the approach is calibrated, diplomatic sources explain: the sanctions are targeted and deal with the mandate of each UN body. For instance, it is widely anticipated here that a resolution will be brought forward at the World Health Assembly (WHA) as it opens its seventy-fifth annual session on Sunday. It will condemn Russia’s attacks on hospitals, the dramatic impact on the sanitary situation in Ukraine, the breakdown in the medical supply chain, and the consequences on the Ukrainian population, including refugees. China is expected to oppose it.

China’s now overt alignment with Russia is exacerbating a rivalry with the US that the war had temporarily obscured. In Geneva, the clash has resurfaced at the WTO, in talks on the adoption of a waiver on vaccine patents. The UN and International Geneva are experiencing an unprecedented stress test. China’s decision to no longer abstain on votes about Russia will only add to it.

- JC



“The legacy of colonialism still pervades global health and sanitary policies in Africa and elsewhere,” Simplice Ayangma Bonoho tells me, over Zoom, from Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé. Last Thursday (May 12), his thesis on WHO’s role in developing and implementing sanitary policies in Africa over the last 50 years was awarded the first Forum Suisse de Politique Etrangère (FSPI) Lombard Odier Prize, a joint venture with Geneva University’s Global Studies Institute (GSI). The jury was unanimous in recognizing the value of his research.

In our discussion, Ayangma Bonoho rejects the idea that the last few years have seen a positive paradigm change in the International Organizations’ (IOs) relationships with the Global South. His interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Congratulations for the Lombard Odier Award! What led you to write your thesis on the World Health Organization?

International Organizations (IOs) are often opaque, difficult to understand, but they have an impact on people’s daily lives. They have a real effect on people’s lives that is observable on the ground. We see their actions, their interactions with the local populations. It is particularly observable in the field of health, but also in other sectors, such as education and social work more broadly.

You write that you wanted to analyze “the potentially destructuring effects of these policies for the countries of Central Africa, from a political point of view (weakening of States and increased dependence on global health policies), economic (destructuring of the economic fabrics linked to the national pharmaceutical sectors) and socio-cultural (abandonment of local processes of medication and medicalization).” What did you find out?

I studied the implementation of health development policies in Central Africa between 1956 and 2000, to evaluate the importance of health norms and standards of health policies in sub-Saharan African states, and public health actions, like the mass vaccination campaigns. What was the World Health Organization (WHO) […] doing in these countries, in a concrete way, to solve the health problems that the populations were facing? These questions led us to see the evolution of these standards in a very precise way, thanks to on-the-ground studies, archives, etc. And the conclusion, which might not be so surprising for some people, is that Western countries (also former colonial powers) were deeply involved in structuring the health policies and their implementation in those countries. Which led us to conclude that those interventions were imbued with colonial presuppositions.

Has that changed? Your research covers the years 1956 to 2000. We are now 20 years later…

In this kind of historical research, it is important to go to the source of things. In such studies, we look for what we call moments of rupture with past principles, or moments of reinforcement—which we also call ‘survivals’. And it is quite clear, over the span of almost 60 years and up to today, that when it comes to health policies, we don’t really see many moments of rupture, but quite a lot of replications. Yes, there have certainly been notable positive evolutions, but we still see continuous patterns of survival, and so, over time, things have not really changed much.

How do you explain the survival of these post-colonial patterns over so many years and until today?

First, because of the legacy of colonialism. After countries gained independence, the former colonial administrators returned as technical advisers, and pursued the same health and sanitary policies. So, they never really left. The mindset still hasn’t changed. Secondly, these policies represent what other researchers have called “hegemonic transactions,” and that hasn’t changed either. Today, technical advisers operate within WHO and other IOs, and continue to advise those states and their governments. And that perpetuates the logic that prevailed in the past.

How can this be remedied? What is the solution? How do we decolonize the system?

I am advocating for a deinstitutionalization of global public health and sanitary policies on several levels. The first such deinstitutionalization ought to happen at WHO. This is not calling for the abolition of WHO, but for a new way of developing policies; international public health and global health policies. Deinstitutionalization should also be applied at the regional and sub-regional level, so the traditional schemes are not perpetuated. It must go down to the lowest level, in hospitals for instance, but also to individuals themselves, who must understand that health is not something which is given to them, but that it is something about which they have agency; that their health will not be ensured because they go to a particular health institution.

But the organizations responsible for public health are not ready or willing to take such an approach because, obviously, they have no interest in people taking care of their health and not going to the hospitals, which would then suffer negative economic consequences. Once we have managed to implement the real participation of communities in the making of decisions that concern them, we will have made a lot more progress. Today’s fundamental problem is that of the real participation of communities in the formulation and implementation of policies at all levels.

To be honest, I am a bit surprised by what you say about this colonial legacy still enduring so strongly today. We have Africans at the head of WHO, the WTO, UNAIDS, but you seem to be utterly skeptical?

I am. You can take people and put them at the helm of an organization but if they reproduce the same logic, you have not achieved much. It involves more than a simple change of individuals at the head of the structures to ensure change. I think we have just witnessed it with the response to the pandemic. Public health in Africa—and you can say in the Global South—is highly dependent on foreign aid and assistance, mostly distributed through WHO. This is perpetuating the old system we are talking about. It is never truly stated, but the logic of donating vaccines to the South is to allow them to sell them to their populations, in order to buy new doses from the donor countries—rather than facilitating countries in Africa or in the Global South to produce vaccines locally. For instance, that’s what the TRIPS waiver discussion is all about.

Today, there are new organizations active in global health, with different stakeholders, and different kinds of governance. I am thinking about GAVI or the Global Fund. What is your assessment of them?

Tweedledum and Tweedledee!


By Kevin Watkins*

When US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau opened the Bretton Woods Conference almost 80 years ago, he reminded delegates that failures of international cooperation had led to the Great Depression, social division, and ultimately war. “Prosperity, like peace, is indivisible,” he concluded, “we cannot afford to have it scattered here or there among the fortunate ... Poverty, wherever it exists, is menacing to us all.”

That message speaks across the ages. We are again facing global challenges that can be met only through international cooperation. Large swaths of the developing world are being excluded from global prosperity. Extreme poverty is rising. Hard-won gains in health, education, and nutrition are under threat. Already obscene economic inequalities between and within countries are widening. The window of opportunity for averting a climate catastrophe is about to slam shut. And yet multilateral cooperation is paralyzed by complacency, petty rivalries, and inward-looking nationalism.

Consider this year’s International Monetary Fund and World Bank Spring Meetings, which offered an opportunity to mobilize the finance needed to prevent wholesale reversals of progress toward the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Instead, Western governments and the G20 arrived with no shared agenda, spent a week swapping platitudes, and left the world with a set of vague and incoherent declarations.

We cannot afford leadership failures on this scale. The IMF and the World Bank, the twin pillars of the Bretton Woods system, should be at the heart of international cooperation in responding to the defining challenges facing our generation, starting with the two-tier recovery from the economic downturn triggered by COVID-19.

Unlike advanced economies, which have recovered on the back of vast government financing and vaccination programs, many developing economies have suffered deep scarring. Growth has slowed, tax revenues have fallen, and two-thirds of low-income countries are either in or at risk of debt distress. The IMF estimates that the poorest countries will need an additional $450 billion to return to their pre-pandemic development trajectories.

Budget pressures are limiting governments’ capacity to defend human development gains. The pandemic pushed almost 100 million people into extreme poverty. That figure is set to rise as safety nets are cut and Russia’s war in Ukraine fuels food-price inflation, raising the specter of increased malnutrition, or even famine, in some parts of the world. More than 40 of the poorest countries are spending more servicing their debts than on public health. Education budgets are being cut even as millions of the world’s most disadvantaged children return to classrooms carrying the learning losses inflicted during pandemic-related school closures.

Against this grim backdrop, international cooperation to finance an “SDG recovery” has gained new urgency. The OECD estimates that the already-large pre-pandemic SDG financing gap has increased by $1.2 trillion. That’s without the incremental investments of $2 trillion annually needed to support renewable-energy investments in developing countries to achieve the 2015 Paris climate agreement’s goals.

When governments committed to the SDG agenda seven years ago, they pledged a bold new approach to development finance that would convert “billions into trillions.” The architects of the Bretton Woods system created the vehicle to do so in the form of multilateral development banks (MDBs).

Designed to support postwar European reconstruction, the MDB system – the World Bank and its regional counterparts – enshrines a simple but powerful financial model. With small amounts of paid-in capital underpinned by much larger government guarantees (“callable capital”), the MDBs can use their AAA credit ratings to issue bonds at low interest rates and lend to developing countries, effectively mobilizing private finance for public investment. The World Bank, the largest MDB, has only $19 billion of paid-in capital, and $278 billion of callable capital.

Multilateral finance has multiplier effects that bilateral aid cannot duplicate. Every $1 invested in the World Bank through paid-in capital mobilizes $4 in new finance. Yet the MDB system is at best weakly exploited. Apart from its soft-loan facility, the International Development Association, the World Bank system played a muted role in supporting developing countries during the pandemic, and the MDBs’ financing portfolio for climate interventions in low- and middle-income countries is just $38 billion – a fraction of what is needed.

While the MDBs (notably the African Development Bank) are undercapitalized, the bigger problem is a deeply entrenched conservatism in financial governance. Major shareholders – the US and European governments – refuse to allow callable-capital guarantees to be integrated into lending operations. Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute estimate that changing this rule could mobilize an additional $1.3 trillion, with only a marginal change in credit ratings and borrowing costs.

Speaking at the spring meetings, US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen lamented the MDBs’ failure to mobilize the trillions needed for pandemic recovery. And yet the Biden administration has failed to overhaul the rules on callable capital.

Other attempts at innovation have run into a bureaucratic brick wall. Gordon Brown, the UN’s Special Envoy for Global Education, has proposed a system of modest grants and guarantees that could double MDB financing for education, unlocking $10 billion. Yet even in the face of an unprecedented education crisis, donors have failed to act.

This is a travesty of the Bretton Woods system. In the misplaced defense of AAA credit ratings, the MDBs are eschewing solutions that would support recovery, prevent devastating reversals in human development, and bring hope to millions of children.

Sadly, it is not just the MDB agenda that is stuck. Nine months after G20 governments pledged to allocate $100 billion of the IMF’s new issuance of special drawing rights (SDRs, the Fund’s reserve asset) to poor countries, not a single cent has been transferred. Meanwhile, with debt servicing set to surge by 45% this year – most of it going to commercial creditors and China – vital investments are being crowded out, and the risk of disorderly sovereign defaults is growing. Yet we are no closer to a comprehensive debt-reduction framework than we were a year ago.

As the crisis triggered by COVID-19 has deepened, some commentators have called for a new Bretton Woods system. They have a point. The World Bank and the IMF maintain anachronistic Western-dominated governance systems. But what is missing from the response to today’s defining human-development challenges is not financial architecture, but rather the sense of urgency, shared purpose, and common endeavor that defined the original Bretton Woods conference.

*Kevin Watkins, a former CEO of Save the Children UK, is a visiting professor at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa at the London School of Economics.
©️ Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Guest Contributor: Kevin Watkins

Editorial Assistance: Ciara O'Donoghue

Edited by: Dan Wheeler